A fortuitous forgetting of flip fops on a beach trip to Hawaii kicked off a string of exploration that has literally taken Heather Shuster across the globe and back to found natural rubber flip flop company OLLI.
She figured it’s Hawaii – there’s got to be plenty of options for flip flops. But the Ohio native was disappointed by what she found.
“Everything that I found, it just looked so cheap and poorly made to me,” Shuster says.
The materials were cheap, but the prices were expensive. Most of the sandals were made from non-environmentally friendly materials like plastic, PVC or EVA foam. A teacher before she became a flip flop founder, Shuster spent eight years working at an international school in China. She says it was a wonderful experience, but it gave her a totally new perspective on the environment and how products are made.
Living in southern China, Shuster was surrounded by manufacturing. Immersed in the products and the people who made them, she got a feeling for where things come from, how much they cost, and how they were made. She started thinking there had to be a better material for a flip flop. That’s when she discovered natural rubber.
Unlike synthetic rubber made from petroleum byproducts, natural rubber is bio-degradable, sustainable and a renewable resource. The natural latex is harvested from a tree much the way maple syrup is.
Shuster decided to go straight to the source. With her sister and business partner Holly in tow, Shuster headed for the rubber plantations of Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand. OLLI was going to source their own materials.
“In an effort to do that I found a lot of other things, too,” she says.
What the sisters found was poverty, terrible working conditions and exploitation. They wanted to make a better flip flop, but not at the expense of others. That’s when OLLI turned to the Fair Rubber Association.
As a member of the organization, “We only work with audited plantations,” Shuster says.
The rubber that goes into OLLI’s flip flops comes from plantations that provide good working conditions, protective equipment and fair wages among other standards. OLLI has found a plantation and manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka that meets these standards so that consumers can buy with confidence.
OLLI will release its line of men’s and women’s flip flops just in time for spring. While the rubber can be transformed into about 20 different colors, Shuster expects their line of neutrals – black, grey, brown and navy – will be top sellers. The sandals will retail at $29 – a price Shuster says is competitive with other brands.
The company will launch a Kickstarter on Monday, March 13 to drum up some initial interest. Shuster says it will be a great learning experience and a way to reach an audience they normally wouldn’t have access to, all while raising awareness of fair trade, natural rubber.
Post-Kickstarter, the sandals will be available on their website and Amazon. The brand was a part of a surf expo in Florida last fall, at which the online giant approached OLLI to sell their flip flops. Shuster is also in talks with a few other websites to carry the line.
When she tells people about her OLLI journey, Shuster says she’s often met with, “I could never do that.”
“What I have found is that if you have a positive attitude, that is really half of what you do,” she says.
That and showing up. Shuster says it made all the difference in finding rubber plantations. There were many emails and many phone calls, but if she contacted a plantation to say she was actually in the country, it was come on over. Show up, do the work – Shuster says if she can do it, a lot of people can.
Stay up to date at olliworld.com.
Update: Check out OLLI on Kickstarter.
All photos via OLLI.